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Could earthworms help us understand rising infertility rates?

Grass Clippings - Lawn Soil CastA Massey University study using earthworms as a model organism is investigating the impact heavy metals and pesticides could have on our genes, in particular on our reproductive systems and fertility.

For many lawn owners, their lawns are being blighted with their lawn soil casts.

Dr Michelle Thunders, Director of Teaching and Learning for the College of Health has recently returned from a trip to China, where she is working with researchers from the Shanghai Jiaotong University (SJTU) to explore how heavy metal toxins, initially cadmium, can interfere with gene expression in adult and juvenile earthworms.

The research project plans to make use of rapid advances in next-generation sequencing and Bioinformatic analysis to look at the impact of such environmental toxins on gene expression.

The work contributes to a field of science known as ecotoxicogenomics, which aims to understand the link between the internal genome and the external environment. It will provide vital groundwork for future studies on how toxins affect both detoxification and reproductive functions.

Dr Thunders says, ultimately, her studies could be carried out on humans in a bid to unlock the puzzle of the increasing incidence of human sub-fertility. 

“The aim is to develop new predictive models for identifying environmental hazards and their impact on human health and population effects.

Earthworms are sensitive to toxic chemicals present in the soil and so are useful as bio-indicator organisms.

Selecting a model organism such as the earthworm to understand environmental regulators of fertility is pertinent for many reasons, including their short reproductive cycle, the fact they are hermaphrodite but breed sexually, they are easy to manipulate and an increasing body of genomic data is becoming available on this species”

She says the successful relationship between Massey University and the SJTU School of Agriculture and Biology is vital for a project like this one.

“We can share expertise and different approaches to the question. They also have an amazing lab and field facilities, and I was fortunate enough to see the experiments they are carrying out.”

Dr Thunders went to China with funding from Education NZ as part of a tripartite agreement led by Associate Professor Cory Matthew from Massey University’s College of Science.

Shanghai Jiaotong University is ranked in the top four of more than 2550 universities in China and sits in the top 150 in world rankings.

Read more on Scoop

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